George Bernard Shaw once said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
The latest fitness trend takes the sentiment to heart. Outdoor playgrounds for seniors are popping up across the country. Popular in Europe, the facilities typically feature low-impact exercise equipment designed to promote flexibility, balance, and coordination. Senior play spaces—most built over the last decade—can now be found in Miami, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Boston Seattle, Cedar Rapids, Oregon, New York City, and scores of other communities across the country.
There several players in this growing insutry. Must Have Play, an Ithaca, New York-based company, plans and builds playgrounds in conjunction with existing assisted-living facilities. KaBoom!, a nonprofit based in California and D.C., has built more than 50 multigenerational playgrounds nationally, and Greenfields Outdoor Fitness, based in Orange County, California, has built adult playgrounds in public spaces around the country.
The fitness benefits of playgrounds are obvious. In fact, a Finnish study looking at 40 people ages 65 to 81 who had access to a senior playground found that after three months of regular use, seniors saw significant gains in balance, speed and coordination—and had fun doing it. “The opportunity to exercise, get stronger and help delay the functional limitations that may come with age seems like a really positive idea all around,” says Julie Schmidt, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Queens University in Charlotte, NC, who focuses on the aging issues.
But there are other good reasons to give them a try. Many are placed near parks or other public facilities to provide seniors the chance to interact with others, thus countering the isolation many older people experience. The playgrounds are often marketed as multigenerational, allowing young children the chance to bond with their grandparents or other older adults.
“Studies looking at intergenerational programs show that shared experiences benefit both the young and the old,” Schmidt says. “Seniors get a chance to pass along skills and wisdom. Kids report positive views of later life. These experiences promote a sense of connection and belonging.”
These playground perks “check off a lot of the boxes that lead to better brain health,” says Debra Raybold, brain-based life coach in South Bend, Indiana, and founder of That Essential Spark, a firm that helps people and companies apply neuroscience principles to life. “Being exposed to novel, dynamic experiences is one of several ways to develop as much resilience as we can against dementia,” she says.
At the new multigenerational playground at the Marion Diehl Senior Center in Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood kids scramble onto a climbing wall and other colorful equipment, while a few feet away, older adults work out on outdoor versions of gym ellipticals, stationary bikes and resistance machines.
Kids often wander over to the adult equipment to give it a try or strike up a conversation. “Do you want to be the pizza delivery guy?” a young girl asks a 60-ish woman, inviting her into her make-believe game. Although the woman demurs, she leaves the playground with a smile on her face.
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